The question of changing school start times, so students can get more sleep, isn’t getting any rest in the Bridgewater-Raritan Regional School District.
The issue was discussed at length by the board of education Oct. 29, but a decision has still not been made.
Superintendent Russell Lazovick said there were about 60 attendees in the audience at the Oct. 21 forum regarding school start times, while about 600 more watched a live stream of the event on the Internet. The video of the forum is also indexed, so viewers can shift to watching different parts of the presentation at their leisure.
“It’s a goal of educating the community,” said Lazovick. “It seems to be working.”
Board member Ann Marie Mead also attended the start time forum, and said it had sounded “very negative” to her, particularly when sleep-deprived students were referred to as “zombies,” which she admitted took her aback as both a parent and a board member. She added that she also did not attribute the “negative narrative” to the superintendent.
Lazovick pointed out that the forum panelists and experts were not members of the local community, and had had specific issues to address.
“At this point, we’re looking for the next steps,” he said.
He also spoke of the district potentially hiring a transportation consultant to study the possible change in start times, and options concerning it, approximately $5,000.
Mead asked if the board had to make a decision on changing school start times by December, and Lazovick replied that at some point the board had to determine if it wanted to pursue the matter. He also said that if the board was going to do it, then it had to establish a time line, and also had to decide what option would be most effective.
Mead said she believes the board won’t have enough information to vote in the near future, particularly regarding how the community feels. She asked if the goal is to push back school start times a half hour, or an hour.
Mead added that the Princeton school district had pushed back its start times 30 minutes, but that it only had some 3,200 students, as opposed to Bridgewater-Raritan’s nearly 8,500 pupils.
She also asked if the Bridgewater-Raritan Education Association had been involved in any of the discussions about changing start times, and remarked that the Pemberton school district had failed in its initiative to change its start times.
“We need to spend more time with the data,” she said.
Lazovick countered that school districts across the country have made the change, and that the board has to discuss the matter, including getting the (revised) start time into the 8 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. window.
“As superintendent, it’s a health issue I have to address,” Lazovick said.
Parent Jessica Levitt, who has often spoken aloud about changing school start times, said that “lack of sleep is hurting our children.”
Lazovick said he would go over the period-by-period school schedule the following day, and also said that the issue of altering start times was “currently affecting everyone.”
Board president Jill Gladstone said she would like to hold a mini-forum with the heads of various associations in the district.
“We want a face-to-face conversation,” she said.
Lazovick reiterated that the changing start times experiment in the Pemberton school district failed because of how that district had gone about the change.
“Do it the right way, we’ll find an answer,” he said.
He spoke of keeping a staggered schedule, with the middle and high schools in the start window of 8 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. With regard to costs, and how families will be affected, he added that the best possible way to accomplish things is to get other school districts on board, and share resources with them.
That, Lazovick said, could make things more affordable, but not necessarily correct for all families.
“Everything needs to be maintained proportionally,” said Lazovick, citing school buses not having to be doubled or tripled up to transport students, due to a starting time change, if possible.
He also said that period-by-period schedules were not ready to be moved at present, with a discussion needed to be held with staff, and that districts need to make potential start time changes work within themselves, not just simply copy what someone else does.
Board member Lynne Hurley said she couldn’t imagine how changing start times wouldn’t affect every single school in the district. Board member Melanie Thiesse said the board needs to look over the data, watch the forum video and allow the transportation study.
Mead asked again when a decision needs to be made by, and Lazovick replied that, as superintendent, he is trying to get information out to everyone, especially the school board. Gladstone said the board will “see how it goes,” while new board member Steven Singer said they need to go ahead and address the matter.
Hurley said she was not sure that parents at the younger grade levels are processing the notion of changing the start times, although she has heard a lot from the older grades.
“It’s going to impact families,” she said, possibly financially.
“I’m trying to push information,” added Lazovick, who said that it was not his idea, one way or the other.
He continued that it is simply a matter of changing the start times, and going from there.
Mead said she wasn’t so sure.
“I’m struggling with this,” she said. “I’m trying to jump on board.”
She said she hasn’t heard an opposing view, not necessarily related to health, and added it is “not an easy discussion.” Lazovick responded that more people need to be involved in the discussion, and said that if the switch is made, then the district’s students will get more sleep.
“I completely support moving forward,” said Gladstone.
She said she feels that an 8:30 a.m. start time is “a little on the late side,” and also inquired about possible expenses, such as if funds are available in the operating budget, or if referendums would possibly be required.
Board members were asked if everyone was prepared to go forward with the bus and transportation consultant, and the answer was affirmative. Lazovick said there is a limit on options, and that the consultant has experience, although there are only certain ways to schedule district transportation.
Gladstone suggested perhaps calling a special board meeting in November to further discuss the changing start times issue, as the board is only scheduled to meet once this month. Another option, she said, is to split the discussion with the board’s upcoming retreat, or to perhaps hold a meeting in December.
The board is next set to meet Nov. 19 at 7:30 p.m., at a site to be determined.